How COVID-19 Can Help Us Beat Impostor Syndrome | The COVID-19 Experience from the NOD Team

May 28, 2020 | Blog by Charles Catherine, Special Assistant, NOD

Have you ever attributed some of your accomplishments to luck rather than to your own talent? You are not alone. This phenomenon, which is known as “imposter syndrome,” was conceptualized by Suzanne Imes, PhD and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD in the 1970s. It occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. According to a 2013 study, minority groups, including people with disabilities, are especially susceptible to experiencing impostor syndrome (Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development).

The impostor phenomenon becomes a vicious cycle. Afraid of being discovered as a fraud, people go through tremendous efforts to do a project perfectly. When they succeed, they begin believing all that anxiety and effort paid off. This constant fear can have a terrible impact on our mental health.

Like the coronavirus, emotions are highly contagious. And negative emotions are the easiest to catch. Fear, uncertainty and worry can spread to our collective psyche.

Thankfully, there are many ways to help us overcome the belief that we don’t measure up to people’s expectations. The COVID-19 crisis opens up a rare window of opportunity to practice some of these coping mechanisms and to change the way we think about success and leadership:

  1. Talk to your mentors
  2. Recognize your expertise
  3. Realize no one is perfect
  4. Change your thinking

This crisis challenges our ability to think of suffering not simply as an individual burden, but as a shared experience – an experience that we could then potentially turn into something affirmative. To all of you who are feeling unsettled, realizing that you might suddenly need technical or mental health support, to those who worry about how this might affect your productivity and your ability to keep your job, I welcome you to my world. Even when this pandemic finally ends, let’s remember how we felt during this crisis, when we were truly caring about each other, when we were ready to go shopping for our elderly neighbors, when we had dinner on Zoom with our family, when we felt connected by this common struggle. In this emergency situation, there is no room for pretense, we have a chance to show our true self and lead in a different way.

The pandemic has made the world stand still; it forces us to show another side of our personality to our colleagues and will change tomorrow’s professional environment. It could also help us redefine the qualities that we value in our leaders. When we leave the imposter idea behind, we have a chance to open up to our coworkers, be more vulnerable than we would otherwise be.

I challenge each of you to identify something that you noticed during these unprecedented times that could impact everyone if universally implemented. It could be thinking about accessibility, starting a conversation on mental health, having more flexible accommodation policies, OR rethinking the way we lead. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said: “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”

Charles Edouard Catherine joined the National Organization on Disability in 2018 as the special assistant to the president, Carol Glazer. With a background in Global Health, he served for several years as the executive director of the Surgeons of Hope Foundation. He successfully led the expansion of the organization from operating a solo program in Nicaragua to several ongoing, congruent programs throughout Latin America. A 2012 graduate of Sciences Po Bordeaux, France, Charles holds a Master’s degrees in International Relations. Charles is also a classical pianist of 25 years, a marathoner, and an elite triathlete.

 Learning to Recognize and Talk About Mental Health Challenges | The COVID-19 Experience from the NOD Team

Blog by Margaret Ling, Project Assistant, Employer Services & Office Manager, NOD

Margaret LingAs days morph into a continuous stream of time, I feel the control I once enjoyed over my life has drifted away.

COVID-19, and its uncertainty, hurts my ability to find balance and causes confusion as we all try and adapt to a ‘new normal.’ For people like me who deal with mental health issues, it is particularly hard.

It seems a fitting time to talk about the depression and anxiety many people are feeling right now as May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It is a good opportunity to focus on how to help ourselves and those we love.

I am grateful for my family, my friends, and my mission-driven job. I feel fortunate to be working as unemployment skyrockets to new daily highs. But things are hard right now.

My life is all NYC. This is home and everything I know. Many of the people I love live here. And sadly, a new habit formed in the last few months is to constantly check Facebook. It has become the obituary section for me to learn about friends’ deaths from coronavirus.

Texts are coming in alerting me that someone close is gone. Staring at these device screens, my heart sinks and I shudder to think who in my life will be next? Living through post 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy was brutal. This is truly horrific.

Hearing daily reminders of the pandemic, layered with mortality data and personal losses, induces fear, stress and anxiety. I know I am not a lone sufferer.

I have had a two-decade-long courtship with anxiety and panic attacks. I feel fortunate that I can recognize and have learned to verbalize what I feel internally. Rapid pounding in my chest, shallow breaths, inability to maintain a clear thought or focus, stabbing chest pains, cat naps in place of extended hours of sleep, racing thoughts, weakness, headaches, mind and body numbness and other physical symptoms can be variations within a single day.

I understand the stress, anxiety and panic that overtake my mind and body. It happens even when I try to rationalize with myself that all of this chaos might pass and become a memory in some months. Still, getting through each day means finding ways to cope with the constant unknowns and uncertainties.

What grounds me are my weekly sessions with my therapist, now done over the phone. With each conversation, I’m working to radically accept my thoughts and feelings instead of trying to fight and suppress them. I know they have legitimacy now during a global pandemic.

My struggles with mental health issues have helped me work on NOD’s Campus to Careers program, which helps students with disabilities find internships and jobs. I have seen how prominent mental health issues are for our traditional college-aged students. It forces me to think about what can be done so that generation, and all of us, can heal. Our lifestyle must embody our mental well being to address pain, grief and distress.

We need to start helping ourselves by practicing mindfulness, introspection. We must find ways to be kind to ourselves and those around us. We should push forth, challenge the stigma attached to mental health issues and open a dialogue about it. If we work together, be patient and understand how to label symptoms and feelings, we can come out of this pandemic with a new way to look at mental health challenges.

Margaret Ling serves as NOD’s Project Assistant for Employer Services and Office Manager. She received her B.B.A from Baruch College, City University of New York in Management. During this time, she was active in advocating for people with disabilities on campus by founding the Difference Makers Club and serving as Vice Chair, for the CUNY Coalition for Students with Disabilities.

Empathy Helps Employees Struggling with Mental Illness to Thrive | The COVID-19 Experience from the NOD Team

Blog by Carol Glazer, President, NOD

When my first son was born, I remember thinking, as parents do, about the promise of what the future would hold for him.

With Jacob though, I discovered that the future can begin as a quivering promise.

Jacob was born with hydrocephalus and would undergo a dozen brain surgeries in his first year — another two dozen over the course of his life. It all took an emotional toll.

Years later I was diagnosed with parental Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and associated anxiety and depression. Normally we relate PTSD with soldiers who experience combat. But parents, especially mothers, of children with serious health conditions can suffer from the condition.

I have learned a great deal from my experience, about myself and about the toll mental health challenges can take in the workplace. I understand how important it is for organizations to recognize that mental illness is an issue their staff struggles with regularly.

Roughly 1 in 5 U.S. adults – nearly 50 million people – experiences mental illness each year. More than half of Americans will deal with mental illness at some point in their lives.

And that figure was a baseline before COVID 19. A poll in April by the Kaiser Foundation shows that about half of adults feel the pandemic is impacting their mental health. And one in five says it’s already had a major impact.

Our great task is to find ways to help our employees who are struggling with these difficulties and allow them to thrive. When I discuss my experience, I emphasize the importance of empathy. If there is one thing that companies can take away in May from Mental Health Awareness Month, it is that.

It was the empathy among colleagues at work that helped me deal with the anxiety and the stress associated with my diagnosis. To bend an old saying, they helped me realize that while time heals all wounds, it also leaves marks that have to be attended to.

Part of empathy is helping our staff work through their own experiences around mental illness. It has to start with an understanding of the pain of mental illness.

Our Corporate Leadership Council member companies are doing amazing things; they are creating work cultures that allow employees to be open about mental illness, giving them permission to share their stories. They understand this allows managers to create more inclusiveness and reap the benefits from diverse talents and perspectives.

With COVID we need to be even more cognizant of employees facing mental health challenges. Because of the economic trials, fears of a life-threatening illness and continuing isolation, people have no lack of stressors.

Most of us lived through 9/11 and know that in the wake of the disaster, we healed ourselves by coming together, joining with our families, our neighbors, our co-workers. We can’t do that with social distancing. Also, 9/11 had a start and an end. What fuels anxiety is that we don’t know when the end of this is pandemic will occur or what it will even look like.

More than ever we need to create work cultures that make it okay to reach out and ask a colleague in distress if they are all right. This is especially important now, when we are not physically together – and in some cases may be permanently teleworking.

We have to create ways for people to feel safe, where they have the confidence that they don’t need to conceal their experiences. Rather they can talk about them, get treatment for them, and even use them to advantage.

I have been able to do that with my wonderful colleagues at the National Organization on Disability. Between knowing I can be honest at work, and watching Jacob grow into a funny, caring, lovable young man, I find strength.

We know that with the pain of mental illness comes resilience; there is a greater ability to cope with adversity, understand vulnerability, and show compassion. All of that drops to the bottom line for a company and helps those of us dealing with mental health challenges become assets to our employers, not liabilities.

Carol Glazer is President of the National Organization on Disability, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization representing all of America’s 57 million people with disabilities. She is a speaker and subject matter expert on issues regarding the employment of people with disabilities and has addressed audiences at national conferences, corporate forums and higher education institutions, among others. 

Carol holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and in 2012, was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by Allegheny College for her work on behalf of individuals with disabilities. She has two children, one of whom was born with hydrocephalus and has physical and intellectual disabilities.

NOD Welcomes Toyota Financial Services President and Chief Executive Officer to Board of Directors

Headshot of Mark TemplinNEW YORK (May 19, 2020) – The National Organization on Disability (NOD) today announced Mark Templin, president and CEO of Toyota Financial Services, as the newest member to join its Board of Directors. Mr. Templin will join 19 other civic and corporate leaders from across the country working to advance disability inclusion in the workforce.

“This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, one of the most comprehensive and sweeping pieces of civil rights legislation in our nation’s history,” said NOD Chairman, Gov. Tom Ridge. “Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to roll back many of the gains we have made since then. Mark’s arrival to our Board of Directors comes at a critical time. We will need to tap his considerable skills, along with those of our entire Board of Directors, to work with the disability community to ensure people with disabilities are not excluded from the economic recovery once our nation has been able to defeat the virus. We thank Mark for his leadership.”

Mark Templin oversees all Toyota Financial Services activities in North and South America as well as in Australia and New Zealand. He is also the chief executive officer of Toyota Insurance Management Solutions, the director and group chief operating officer of Toyota Financial Services Corporation, and has served as chairman of the board of Toyota Motor Credit Corporation since May 2016.

“The National Organization on Disability is performing vital work to advance employment opportunities for the 20 million Americans with disabilities,” said Mark Templin. “I look forward to working alongside their dedicated group of leaders to make progress on this crucial issue.”

Since joining Toyota Motor Sales (TMS) in 1990, Templin has held a number of positions including serving as group vice president and general manager of the Lexus Division for TMS, overseeing all aspects of Lexus’ U.S. automotive operations, including sales and marketing, retail development, customer satisfaction and product planning. He later served as executive vice president of Lexus International, responsible for leading the luxury brand’s global operations.  Before joining Toyota, Templin held several positions at General Motors Corporation.  Templin earned a Bachelor of Science degree at University of Central Missouri where he studied automotive technology.

Finding Resilience and Peace During a Pandemic | The COVID-19 Experience from the NOD Team

Priyanka GoshBlog by Priyanka Ghosh, Director of External Affairs, NOD

Breath has a way of connecting us. It is universal and symbolic of life itself.

If we try, we can take note of the sensations and sounds of the air carried into and out of our lungs.

I have been a practitioner of breath work and meditation for a long time. It has become a way of life. Something that grounds me. And I recognize its importance now more than ever. I see its relevance for me, for those around me, whether I know them or not. Each of us needs to discover that something which centers us, that brings calm into the chaos that we feel around us.

The stress and anxiety that COVID-19 has thrown into this world is unprecedented. Everything has shifted in ways we never anticipated. Things we took for granted just a few months ago are now a privilege. As a result, many are struggling with mental health issues, including loneliness and depression. Nationally, we highlight May as Mental Health Awareness Month. The need to draw attention to mental health issues is greater than ever this year. We must especially learn from one another how to cope with these challenges.

Some focus on exercise, cooking and online creative classes, to name a few. I turn to Art of Living online meditation classes. The work we all do on ourselves, finding out who we are at our core and what makes us calm, is important. It is hard to help others if we are unable to mitigate the stresses in our own lives. Understanding that, will influence how well we get through the coronavirus crisis.

Whatever our coping mechanism, we all need employers to promote a work culture that supports people who are feeling stressed and anxious right now, and assists those who need more help at this time.

At the National Organization on Disability, we understand better than most what mental health challenges people are facing on a regular basis.

Roughly 1 in 5 U.S. adults, nearly 47.6 million people, experience serious mental illness each year. Added to that, more than 50 percent of Americans will manage a mental health condition at some point in their lives. What is worrisome is that those are statistics gathered pre-COVID-19.

A poll just released in April by the Kaiser Foundation shows that about half of adults feel the pandemic is impacting their mental health. Almost one in five says it’s been a major impact.

Employers can no longer ignore these statistics. If mental health and well-being of employees go unchecked, businesses will see increased absenteeism, lost productivity and higher health care costs.

Beyond the financial side, a more human element is in play here. Employees need to know there is flexibility and understanding within their work culture to not just survive but thrive through this pandemic.

Corporate America must create a place where employees know it is okay to share their stories and struggles with their leaders, managers and colleagues. They should be able to share how they truly feel without fear of judgement or repercussions.

Creating that kind of culture takes effort. The tone is set by top leadership, generating an environment where empathy is embedded. This leads to everyone being considerate of one another.

If this crisis has taught us one thing it is that we are all connected. We are in this together and we will get through this together. Every one of us has the capacity for resilience. This is a trait that people with disabilities use every single day to navigate a world that was not built for them. This is also something that businesses need in abundance right now.

Meditation builds that resilience for me. Irrespective of what is happening in the outside world, one can find inner calm and discover the ability to move ahead. It also brings peace and hope. Peace that casts out anxiety. Hope that we continue to support one another, not just now but always.

The months ahead will be challenging ones. Let’s all look for ways to find calmness and strength in our lives and a tranquility that allows everyone to become their own beam of light. If we all discover ways to do this, we can find a peace that will last well beyond a pandemic.

To experience breath work and the joys of inner peace here is one of my favorite videos:

As the director of external affairs, Priyanka Ghosh leads strategic communications and marketing initiatives that engage, mobilize and advance the mission and brand for the organization.

A seasoned communications specialist, she brings years of global experience of working with the United Nations (UN) and most recently, EngenderHealth. Priyanka holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature and went on to specialize in development communication. She also pursued a degree in entrepreneurship with a focus on marketing.

US: Coronavirus crisis sets precedent for working from home

People with disabilities, the chronically ill and commuters are among those relieved to be working from home. They are angry that it took the coronavirus crisis to change the concept of what a workplace looks like.

Civil rights lawyer Britney Wilson — like so many others — is working from her home. She is a New York City native and being able to stay put is something she sees as a privilege. Because those who still have to go to work are often at greater risk of infection. Many of them are essential, but low-income workers.

Wilson lives in a quiet residential area in Brooklyn – quite the opposite to where her office is located, in the heart of Manhattan. She joined the “National Center For Law and Economic Justice” in 2018. “I’ve been thinking, did I need to be making that commute every day? The last two months have proven: probably not,” Wilson says.

Due to her cerebral palsy the lawyer commutes to work via the city’s paratransit “Access-a-ride.” It provides shuttle rides for people with disabilities and the elderly. When things go well, the drive to the office takes an hour. However, she often has to wait for the vehicle to arrive, and there might be one or two more passengers needing to be dropped off at completely different destinations.

“I’m saving a ton of time,” said Wilson about working from home. “This crisis has fundamentally changed the way we think about work and the way that work is structured.”

Britney Wilson standing while crutches in front of US Courthouse
Britney Wilson is pleased to not have to commute every day

Suddenly, there’s empathy

Even after the stay-at-home orders end, employees would likely work from home more frequently than before, said Diane Hettinger, to avoid long commutes and to be able to better juggle business and private appointments. Hettinger works for Prudential Financial, an insurance and investment company listed as one of the largest firms in the country in the “Fortune 500” ranking.

What people thought of as “normal” was likely going to evolve, Hettinger told DW. “Things are changing. Our senior leaders have already said we’re not going back.”

Five years ago her firm appointed her as the head of an accommodation unit, where she works on providing solutions for individuals who have special needs. For example, she makes sure that videos are subtitled for employees or that all building entrances are accessible.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Hettinger has felt that colleagues who did not use her services before are suddenly requesting help. Many had developed more empathy for what it is like to face a challenge. “Everyone in the organization has a greater sense of openness to what can be done by all people,” said Hettinger and, in future, it would be easier to “grant those requests for individuals”.

Companies running out of arguments

Even if infividual companies do not show more flexibility in future, the changes forced by COVID-19 have set precedents. Attorney Vincent White, who specializes in workplace discrimination, says that “we’ve already proven what we always argue. How can an employer argue that an accommodation for someone’s disability to work from home is not reasonable? That’s exactly the argument every attorney is going to make for the foreseeable future in years to come.”

Apart from seeing new possibilities to defend his clients who are employees, White is also supporting companies in handling challenging situation that are arising while people work from home: What do I do when my employee shows up drunk to the online meeting? What if someone’s wardrobe is inadequate? There might not be any sexual harassment cases at the office, but what about the office chatroom as a potential tool for abuse?

Charles-Edouard Catherine running
Charles-Edouard Catherine: Switch to working from home was ‘simple’

All a matter of mindset

The coronavirus crisis makes everyday life more difficult for those who have no work or have lost it as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. People with disabilities or pre-existing conditions are facing even more challenges, especially when they are dependent on services and medical care that have been put on hold.

The fact that the crisis is forcing companies to rethink what an appropriate place of work is, is the small silver lining. Suddenly, now that the majority of the US population is affected, employers have to demonstrate a flexibility that was unthinkable — even with the Americans with Disabilities Act in place, which is celebrating its 30-year anniversary in July.

“We have proven that we can change our habits. We can accommodate people much more than we thought,” Charles-Edouard Catherine, special assistant to the director of the National Organization on Disability (NOD) told DW.

Catherine, who was born in France, now lives with his partner in New York City. He is blind and often uses touch to navigate. Hygiene precautions have made his everyday life a bit more difficult. The switch to working from home though has been easy. “It really was as simple as taking my laptop home.” The biggest obstacle for people with disabilities or illnesses is not always doing the work, it’s getting a job, he says.

Charles Edouard Catherine joined the National Organization on Disability in 2018 as the special assistant to the president, Carol Glazer. With a background in Global Health, he served for several years as the executive director of the Surgeons of Hope Foundation. He successfully led the expansion of the organization from operating a solo program in Nicaragua to several ongoing, congruent programs throughout Latin America. A 2012 graduate of Sciences Po Bordeaux, France, Charles holds a Master’s degrees in International Relations. Charles is also a classical pianist of 25 years, a marathoner, and an elite triathlete.

This article orginally appeared in Deutsche Welle (DW).

Irish Examiner: No going back to reduced rights for people with disabilities

Blind man walking with cane over a pedestrian bridge

The pandemic may usher in an even more unfair society for people with disabilities, a scenario that must be strongly resisted, writes Frank Conaty, Chair of the Irish Disability Advisory Committee

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 – 12:00 AM
The future is a place of concern for most of us in these extraordinary times. However, for people with disabilities, the future is a very uncertain place.

Many people with disabilities who have underlying health conditions are facing the prospect not just of being locked down for weeks, but, in fear of basic survival, are envisaging a self-isolation period stretching to months and even into 2021.

However, beyond the immediate focus on the challenges thrown up by the current crisis, there is a deeper and longer-term fear that for people with disabilities, Covid-19 will see a turning back of the clock on their participation as equals in our society.

The Disability Advisory Committee of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission recently convened to consider the current response to the virus.

This expert group, the majority of whom are disabled people, articulated clearly their fear of a rolling back of their autonomy, an erosion of their independence and effectively being ‘re-institutionalised’ in their own homes.

They also pointed to the risk of a return to outdated attitudes towards people with disabilities. Specifically, seeing disabled people through a medical prism as patients to be ‘treated’, and a ‘burden’ on society, rather than autonomous individuals who will contribute to Ireland’s recovery. This could be the lingering and lamentable legacy of Covid for disabled people.

As Chair of this Disability Advisory Committee, it is clear from listening to its members that people with disabilities have serious and immediate concerns about how they are to be facilitated in responding to the exceptional COVID measures, and to the potential barriers they may face in accessing necessary health and other supports. Their fears, however, run beyond the immediate threats from the virus.

The history of how people with disabilities have been treated in this country is one that chronicles abuse, neglect, stigma, and inequality. In recent times, positive gains have been made to move away from this past.

These gains have been waymarked by important events such as the landmark Report of the Commission on the Status of Persons with Disabilities in Ireland (1996), the enactment – however flawed and incomplete – of the Disability Act 2005 and subsequent additional legislative initiatives.

These culminated in Ireland’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2018, albeit as the very last EU State to do so, and with significant and continuing opt-outs.

While material gaps and shortcomings in Ireland’s approach to supporting people with disabilities remain, and in society’s treatment of their fellow citizens, we have, nevertheless, made progress in the move from an old charitable, medical model of support for people with disabilities, towards a more holistic rights-based perspective, supporting people to live inclusive, independent lives.

As a society, every one of us is having to live with exceptional disruption to our own normality: to work, to education, to elective medical treatment, to exercise, to our social lives, even to the right to move around freely.

However, in having to accept ‘temporary’ roll backs of how they are facilitated in accessing and expressing their rights in a time of COVID, people with disabilities are pointing to the vulnerability of the gains they fought hard to win.

Roll backs that include being asked to be ‘dependent’ once again for basic living requirements. Roll backs that include being excluded from important public health information and announcements, because they are not in an accessible format.

Roll backs that include having their access to vital personal assistants curtailed. Roll backs that include having their needs bundled in with overall health services.

But what role does the health service have in getting a student back to university, or an employee back into their workplace, or an artist back into their studio or an athlete back training?

People with disabilities are often described as ‘vulnerable’. Intrinsically they are not, but are often rendered so by systems vulnerable to retrenchment, neglect, or erosion.

This crisis has rapidly revealed just how vulnerable the gains, and the systems and supports which underpin the autonomy and independence of people with disabilities, still are. At significant risk are people with disabilities, and others, in congregated settings who do not have the capacity to live on their own or advocate for themselves.

These are exceptional times. As a democracy, the Irish people have agreed that we need exceptional measures. But we all expect and will demand the return of our personal liberties, and to hold once again those small but precious freedoms we miss so much at the moment.

People with disabilities also expect that their personal Covid sacrifices will see them returned to a society which sees them as equal participants, playing their part in Ireland’s recovery, and as valued drivers of our future creativity and success as a nation. This is not something we owe. It is not a favour.

Participation and human dignity is their right. If we are all in this together, it is essential that we all come out of it the same way.

Dr. Frank Conaty, Commission Member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and Chair of the Disability Advisory Committee


DiversityInc’s Top Companies for Diversity are Leading in Disability Inclusion

Diversityinc Top 50 logoNOD is proud to partner with the companies honored by DiversityInc for their leadership in workplace diversity. Many have something in common — they also are leaders in disability inclusion.

DiversityInc recognized five of NOD’s corporate partners on its Top Companies for Disability ranking: Northrop Grumman (2), Hilton (4), Eli Lilly (6), KeyBank (10), and General Motors (15).

Additionally, NOD Corporate Leadership Council members earned twenty of the coveted spots on the Top 50 Companies for Diversity ranking: Marriott (1), Hilton (2), Eli Lilly and Company (3), ADP (4), Abbott (8), Toyota Motor North America (10), KPMG (12), Target (13), BASF (14), Northrop Grumman (15), Cox Communications (17), The Hershey Company (21), Boeing (27), Exelon (29), General Motors (30), The Kellogg Company (34), KeyBank (35), Colgate-Palmolive (36), HSBC (48), and Capitol One (50).

NOD salutes all of the winners for their commitment to diversity and inclusion!

8 Lessons the Documentary “Crip Camp” Taught a Blind Millennial  | The COVID-19 Experience from the NOD Team

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is a 2020 American documentary film, about a groundbreaking summer camp which galvanizes a group of teens with disabilities to help build a movement toward greater equality. The film features Larry Allison, Judith Heumann, James LeBrecht, Denise Sherer Jacobson, and Stephen Hofmann.

April 30, 2020 | Blog by Charles Catherine, Special Assistant, NOD

When I started working for the National Organization on Disability in 2018, one of my first assignments was to join a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Labor to discuss the section 14(c)  of the Fair Labor Standards Act (a provision that allows companies under certain conditions to pay people with disabilities sub-minimum wage). I was told Judith Heumann would attend the meeting. I’ll admit,  I knew little about her. I had seen a great Drunk History episode about her life, and I knew in 1977 she led a 25-day sit-in demanding the signing of regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the first disability civil rights law to be enacted in the United States. (It prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal support). At that meeting, I could tell just by listening to Judy that she not only has had incredible experiences, but she also is empathetic. I couldn’t see her, but I felt that she was looking at me as someone who had been there before, who could relate to my experiences and understood me.

When I heard Barack and Michelle Obama had produced a documentary on the birth of the disability rights movement, that this documentary would feature Judy, and that it would come out for the 30th anniversary of the ADA, I was anxious to find out how they pulled everything from that incredible time, including Judy’s role, together.

Here are eight lessons I took away after watching Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution:

  1. Language is key
    The title of this documentary, “Crip Camp” refers to Camp Jened, a summer retreat in the Catskills where, from 1951 to 1977, young people with disabilities first experienced the joys of community. Judy was a counselor there. No one actually calls the place “Crip Camp,” but it is a great way to reclaim the term crippled that was often used in mainstream media then, and it sets the tone for a documentary that is not overly concerned with making anyone, abled or disabled, feel comfortable.
  2. I’m not alone
    When Judy was a child, her public school refused to allow her to attend class, calling her a “fire hazard”. Apparently in America, if one has polio and uses a wheelchair, one can become president, but can’t go to school. At my small level, fighting for accessibility means: having the energy to write to a company letting them know their website isn’t accessible, having the confidence to ask for the right accommodations at work, or not being discouraged when I am told I can’t register for a swim race because it would be “too dangerous” for a blind athlete to swim in the East River. Learning more about Judy’s life helped me overcome those challenges, made me realize that I wasn’t alone.
  3. “There is no power greater for change than a community discovering what it cares about,” wrote author Margaret Wheatley.
    My favorite moment of the documentary comes  when we watch campers candidly share their hardships in group conversations. It is like watching the birth of a community. They talk about their lack of privacy, their overprotective parents, the indifference of strangers, all things that I can relate to, 50 years later. A lovely couple, Neil and Denise Jacobson,  who both have cerebral palsy, met at this camp and experienced firsthand a lot of ableism, even from their own family. Neil confessed that when his parents learned that he was engaged to Denise, they told him: “We understand why you’d want to marry someone with cerebral palsy, but couldn’t you try to marry someone who has polio instead?” (In their mind, people with polio were considered at a higher level of function than people with cerebral palsy)
  4. Suffering can turn into a creative force
    Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “As my sufferings mounted, I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation, either to react with bitterness, or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.” Thanks to Judy and to all her fellow activists, the signing of Section 504 in 1977, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 have changed a lot of norms, this progress was fueled by many years of suffering and exclusion.
  5. “There is no failure except in no longer trying.” Elbert Hubbard, writer and artist
    Unsurprisingly, despite that meeting with the Secretary of Labor in 2018, 14(c) is still in vigor today in America; it remains legal for companies to pay people with disabilities subminimum wages. But thanks to Judy and her calm demeanor, that day I realized you may never know what results come from your action, but if you do nothing, there will be no result.
  6. Disability is a form of diversity
    “Crip Camp” repeatedly links the struggles of the disabled to other fights for civil rights. It begins with one of the counselors, Lionel Je’ Woodyard, an African-American from Mobile, Alabama, who remembers seeing similarities in the treatment of blacks in the South and the shunning of the disabled. Later, we see the Black Panthers bringing hot meals to keep the protesters fed during the 504 sit-in in San Francisco. HolLynn D’Lil, a journalist who became a paraplegic after a road accident, even confesses that the protest  taught her that disabled rights were rights for everyone.
  7. A coherent organizing model is essential for effective work
    When we watch in the documentary disabled demonstrators famously dragging themselves up the steps of the U.S. Capitol building to bring about ramps, curb cuts and other essential accessibility provisions, we watch a community that is not just determined but also organized. Although people with disabilities constitute one of the largest minorities in the United States, and even if this is a minority that we each could join at any time, to this day, the disability population is not deemed by many economic and political forces to have much clout. The history of this movement is still very much being written, and it is always good to remember that as writer and anthropologist Margaret Mead famously put it “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
  8. We need to keep this energy alive
    The documentary ends with former camper Jim LeBrecht and others returning to the site of Camp Jened, which closed in 1977 for financial reasons. Denise Jacobson has this great quote: “I almost want to get out of my wheelchair and kiss the fucking dirt.For Denise and her friends, everything started there, and it is up to us to keep this energy alive. The National Organization on Disability will honor Judy Heumann at its annual event, the Leading Disability Employers Dinner in September. We will have a chance to celebrate a role model, but also a chance to remind ourselves that we still have a lot of work ahead of us, that together, we are stronger than we think. It is deeply worrying that, amid an unprecedented crisis right now, we see many cases where the specific needs of the disability community are being overlooked. As we design systems for the future, it is important we do not repeat the wrongs of the past.

Charles Edouard Catherine joined the National Organization on Disability in 2018 as the special assistant to the president, Carol Glazer. With a background in Global Health, he served for several years as the executive director of the Surgeons of Hope Foundation. He successfully led the expansion of the organization from operating a solo program in Nicaragua to several ongoing, congruent programs throughout Latin America. A 2012 graduate of Sciences Po Bordeaux, France, Charles holds a Master’s degrees in International Relations. Charles is also a classical pianist of 25 years, a marathoner, and an elite triathlete.